Historic Legacies Related to Lakeport

Overview by Tom DeBlack

In 1831, forty-year-old Joel Johnson, the scion of a large and prestigious Kentucky family, sold his house and grist mill in Scott County, Kentucky, and, leaving behind a wife and five children, set off for Chicot County in the southeasternmost part of the Arkansas territory. The southern expanse of the Arkansas delta that Johnson entered in 1831 was a foreboding frontier wilderness. Bordered by Louisiana on the south and by the Mississippi River on the east, the county’s name may have originated with French riverboatmen of an earlier era who referred to the snags that threatened their boats as “chicots,” the teeth of the river. The Mississippi played a crucial role in the life of Chicot County. Like the Indians who came before them, the earliest white residents of the county settled along its banks and became familiar with its geography and unpredictable nature. They gave it names which reflected their mixed feelings toward it–Old Man River, Old Devil River, Old Big Strong. To read Tom DeBlack’s overview of the Lakeport Plantation, click here.

The Setting

The past environment of the Arkansas Delta was created and controlled by the Mississippi River as it flowed through America’s vast heartland. In the lower portion of its journey from Minnesota pass Memphis, Nachez, and New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico, the river has meandered ceaselessly across a broad valley, leaving behind an intricate pattern of its former channels and courses. Click here to find out more.

Early History of the Region

Humans first entered the Arkansas Delta more than 9,000 years ago. Initially, the impacts these first inhabitants made on the valley’s landscape was limited to the manufacture of stone artifacts and the hunting and gathering of the abundant wildlife and plants. As the population increased over time, these alterations came to include the construction of more elaborate dwellings as well as earthen mounds used for ceremonial and religious activities, and other population centers. With the arrival of Europeans and Americans the human impact on the landscape intensified greatly. At first this took the form of the establishment of trading and governmental centers such as Arkansas Post and the creation of small, individual farmsteads. To read more, click here.

The Johnsons of Lakeport

Joel Johnson arrived in Chicot County in the heart of the Arkansas Delta in 1831 at the mature age of 41. Joel was one of the youngest children of a very prominent Kentucky family which included Richard M. Johnson, Vice President of the United States under Martin Van Buren, and Benjamin Johnson, one of the first federally appointed judges for the Territory of Arkansas and later a federal district judge for Eastern Arkansas. Through Richard, Joel became a member of the political and familial group led by the Conways and Seviers known as The Family which came to dominate Arkansas political and economic affairs for many decades. For more about the Johnsons, click here.

Those Who Labored

Like all other Delta plantations, Lakeport was physically created through the labor of enslaved laborers brought into Arkansas specifically for this purpose. Tax records indicate that when Joel Johnson first began to acquire the lands in Chicot County that were to form the basis of his agricultural fortune, he was already the owner of at least 23 slaves which made him the largest single slave-holder in the county. Likewise his brother Benjamin, then residing in Pulaski County, owned 21 slaves, making him the second largest single slave owner in that county. By 1833, tax records indicate that Joel’s slaveholdings had increased significantly to 50. To read more, click here.

Chicot County Enslaved Laborer Deed Records

Chicot County Deed Records date to 1823 when the county was formed.  Many deed records include the name and age of enslaved people in Chicot County.  During restoration, deed records connected to the Johnsons of Lakeport were researched with the names of the enslaved individuals listed with any additional information given.  This research is being extended to all deed records pertaining to the enslaved laborers of Chicot County.  This database will be regularly updated as further research is conducted.  To view the database, click here.